By Tony Capaccio / Bloomberg
A Boeing plant in Arizona that builds Apache attack helicopters is under scrutiny by more than two dozen Army personnel after the company reported quality problems it says were caused by a derelict technician.
The Army is evaluating whether the quality concerns involving testing and installation of potentially unsafe parts — which temporarily grounded 11 attack helicopters and prompted a delivery halt — were limited to the actions of the now-fired technician or are more systemic at the Mesa, Arizona, plant.
The issue is “absolutely concerning,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an interview. “We had to go back and investigate the supply chain and find all the defective parts” and uncovered “a challenge with the quality testing in the facility,” he said.
The inspection began Sept. 28 after the company reported the issue. The review is meant “to improve quality processes and manufacturing of critical safety items to prevent the Army from receiving products that do not meet standards,” Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Kelley, an Army spokesman, said in a statement. The review includes Boeing and “all the engineering organizations inside Army aviation,” he added.
Defense Contract Management Agency personnel are also participating in the review, which comes after the technician in question improperly performed inspections from August 2018 through mid-September of this year.
The Apache AH-64 quality problems are the latest to roil the No. 2 U.S. defense contractor. Chicago-based Boeing has separately struggled to deliver a KC-46 tanker that meets refueling system specifications nine years after the company won the contract. That’s on top of problems linked to two deadly crashes of the 737 Max, Boeing’s best-selling jetliner, which has been grounded since March 2019.
The Apache helicopter, first used in the 1989 invasion of Panama, “is the most lethal” weapons system for the U.S. Army, McCarthy said. But as the service sought to move to the upgraded E-model version of the chopper, “there have been significant challenges and it has the attention of the entire Army senior leadership,” McCarthy said. “We need to get it on track, to health.”
Boeing immediately notified the Army when “we discovered improper record keeping related to our Apache program,” Steve Parker, vice president at the Boeing Vertical Lift division, said in a statement. “Flight operations and deliveries will resume when Boeing and the Army are satisfied this issue has been resolved and appropriate corrective action plans have been implemented.”
Besides issues with parts testing, the Apaches have had challenges with their rotor system, transmission and 30mm gun, McCarthy said. Nevertheless, he expressed confidence in the company’s ability to respond.
Boeing’s “been a great vendor for us for decades and you go through these challenges” so “it’s how quickly you respond,” McCarthy said. Boeing Chairman Dave Calhoun “has pledged his personal support in leading through this” and “I have no doubt they will get through this with us together,” McCarthy added.
The 11 Apache aircraft were grounded while Boeing replaced suspect components and have returned to flight, Army spokesman Kelley said. Helicopter deliveries will resume “when conditions-based criteria are met.”
Bloomberg News last month disclosed an Army alert to Congress that said the helicopter technician “failed to perform required process control checks that ensure testing equipment functions properly and provides reliable results.” As a result, “this employee’s inspection results cannot be trusted for accuracy.”
The problem, coming after a halt in AH-64E deliveries in 2018 over the rotor-system component problem, indicates that “the Boeing-Mesa facility requires intense government investigation into quality control and process compliance,” the Army document said.
At this point, “there are no known common issues between the rotor issue in 2018, and the current issues.” Kelley said.
McCarthy said he’ll be briefed at the end of the month on an updated improvement plan.